The Opposition Is Not Idle
The “Big White Circle” protest, which took place February 26th in Moscow, showed that the mood of the opposition in Russia is much stronger than the government may wish to admit. It was evident that the protesters were able to quickly and efficiently organise themselves, and it was enough for someone to simply shout loud enough to be heard for the crowds to take to the streets.
In order to create a “human chain” around Moscow’s central Garden Ring, opposition leaders thought that it would be necessary to mobilise around 34,000 people to form the chain hand-in-hand. Last Sunday, they managed such a feat.
It is true that after everyone returned home, the police said that there were no more than 11,000 people who took part in the rally, although it is hard to believe this as the length of the Garden Ring in Moscow is over 16 kilometres. So if you were to believe estimates of the Moscow police, each of the participants would have had to stretch out their arms almost one and a half metres!
Of course this is impossible. Don’t forget that in many places the chain was not made with just single individuals lining the streets. In many cases it was created through crowds standing together, not to mention the drivers of a few hundred cars, who drove around the Garden Ring shouting and beeping to show their support for the protesters.
Let’s finish this argument about the number of people who came out to oppose the government (there were at least 30,000 people), and let’s focus, instead, on the prevailing mood among them.
More than once I heard participants of Sunday’s protest say that they haven’t had such a nice and pleasant time in ages. Indeed, the protesters joked, they laughed, they cheerfully waved to those driving by. None of them were screaming political slogans. Many sympathised with the police, who stood on the side with their sad faces, occasionally commenting on the inscriptions on the banners carried by the crowds. It seems that the most popular slogan was, “We will drive Putin out” which in Soviet slang meant “We will not elect him” and was meant to remind the prime minister that he is 59 years old. According to law, in a year he should go into retirement.
The policemen even started to chat with the oppositionists when there weren’t any of their superiors nearby. However, they did so carefully and with caution so that the older officers did not notice. But most importantly, they did not seem to be “ready to resolutely disperse” the protest.
In addition, those present during the protest of the “Big White Circle” did not provoke the police. But there was a sense among the majority of demonstrators that the government was afraid of them, and it was only necessary for them to wait until the Moscow streets were filled with a few hundred thousand (rather than a few hundred) people for the regime to be overthrown.
It is unclear, however, where this mood of the protesters is coming from. Putin is practically uninterested in the position of the opposition. And his concerns with the sudden social awakening, which probably appeared some time ago, have all but disappeared.
And even if a million-strong crowd surrounded the Kremlin, it would not be enough to influence the position of the government. This is where Putin’s worship for Mahatma Gandhi comes from and he once joked that the death of the Indian sage left no one for Putin to talk to. The protesters’ attitude of peace and lack of aggression fully corresponds to Putin’s outlook: if the “discontented” don’t try to actively overthrow the government, then they can be completely ignored.
However, it is important to emphasise that the “Great White Circle” was a clear sign for the government. Judging by the earlier disdainful messages coming from members of the ruling elite, they believed that the Sunday initiative was doomed to failure, and that the protesters would not be able to achieve the planned “human chain” around the centre of Moscow.
It was quite the opposite. And regardless of the inevitable victory of Putin in the presidential election this Sunday, civic activity in Russia is not weakening. And to “put it to sleep” can only be done by force.
Ivan Preobrazhensky is a Russian columnist and political scientist, he works for the news agency Rosbalt.
Translated by Adam Reichardt